August 24, 2013 Leave a comment
“A Girl Like You” – The Smithereens
Enters Top Ten: November 11, 1989
Modern Rock Chart Peak: 3
Weeks on Modern Rock Chart: 13
Unlike our two previous entries, this is a song that I have absolutely no problem recalling from its original chart run. Isolated as I was and pretty much limited to whatever managed to make regular rotation on the Appleton, Wisconsin regional Top 40 station, even I wasn’t going to escape this one. Not that I wanted to at the time, mind you, I distinctly remember this being one of those songs that I kept my tape deck primed and ready for (if you were thirteen or older in 1989, you know exactly what this meant – the ‘REC’, ‘PLAY’ and ‘PAUSE’ buttons all depressed and waiting for the DJ to shut up so I could lift my finger off the latter). I’m not sure if I can remember the contents of the particular tape this ended up on, but I do know it was in a run with “18 and Life” and “Dr. Feelgood”, so this must have scanned as “heavy” to my thirteen year-old ears.
Which, as I listen to this again, isn’t as weird as one might initially think. While this is certainly nothing more than power pop of the highest order, it does have a few signifiers that tied it closer to the hair metal of the day than Pat DiNizio would probably want to hear. It begins with that iconic opening riff, one that wouldn’t have sounded terribly out of place on a Cinderella or Ratt album. Even now, I half expect it to lead into the high-pitched wail of a make-up encrusted blonde bad boy with teased bangs and a five-o’clock shadow. Those drums certainly don’t help anything the situation when they kick in to underpin that riff, that gated reverb sound on the snare is a dead giveaway for the late eighties production that nearly killed metal drumming dead for a few years. You can see why this would’ve flowed so well from Skid Row and into Motley Crue. This crisp sheen is mostly down to new producer Ed Stasium, who certainly brought a professional approach that served the band’s radio singles well, but it marked a shift in direction from the more atmospheric work Don Dixon had done on the band’s two previous full-lengths.
But once DiNizio’s vocals kick in, the song’s true lineage is quickly revealed. This is more Big Star than big hair, more Squeeze than Slaughter. It becomes one of the oldest stories in pop music, the narrator lusting over the fantasy girl presumed to be way out of his league. Despite the workaday lyrics and unoriginal theme, DiNizio sells the song with an irresistible melody and a surprising amount of charm for a guy whose pleas grow increasingly desperate and possibly delusional by the song’s end. One can’t discount Maria Vidal’s backing turn either, adding a nice counterpoint to DiNizio’s lead vocals and a little bit of flair to this well-worn pop trope (though one can’t help but wonder how the song would have fared with Madonna on backing vocals, as was the rumored original plan). The song reaches a climax with Jim Babjak’s rousing guitar solo, something else that helped it slot in nicely on radio playlists in an era when “rock music” meant spandex and glam.
Although still probably the band’s most widely remembered song, the dated production and relatively pedestrian lyrics means I’m less excited to hear it again than I was some of the singles from the two proceeding albums. “Blood and Roses”, “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Only A Memory” all sound like more engaging tunes to my 2013 ears and more indicative of The Smithereens overall quality. Particularly the latter, which actually outperformed “A Girl Like You” on the Mainstream Rock Chart, hitting number one while “Girl” stalled out at number two. Still, as a trigger for my junior high Top 40 nostalgia, I could’ve done much, much worse.